Forget pulling off a heist at the Topkapı Palace—here is the truly classic Istanbul swindle:
A Meandering Australian Tourist Type (Matt) finds himself trailing behind a shoe shiner in the Sultanahmet. The shoe shiner ‘unwittingly’ drops his brush and continues along the street.
“Sir!” cries Matt, “You dropped your brush!”
The shoe shiner turns in shock and retrieves his brush. “Thank you, my friend! Thank you!”
“No problem.” Matt smiles, moving on, his work here done.
“Wait!” The shoe shiner falls to his knees and seizes Matt’s right boot. “You have saved my livelihood! I must repay!”
“Oh, that’s really not—”
The shoe shiner already has Matt’s foot on his woodblock and has smeared white gunk onto his priceless brush. He raises his eyes to Matt as if praying to an angel. “My gift to you!” He starts to polish Matt’s boot.
A tall man in a baseball cap appears from nowhere to put his arm around Matt’s shoulder. “Lucky man! This is fifteen years number one shoe engineer in all Istanbul! Where you from?”
“Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!”
Matt winces. “Actually that’s an idiotic nationalistic—”
“Oi! Oi! Oi!”
The shoe shiner is now scrubbing Matt’s left boot. “I have wife and four children,” he says. “My children need food…they starve.” He makes a pathetic eating gesture, hand to mouth, oh it’s hopeless, they are wasting away!
Matt sighs and pulls a couple of lira coins out of his pocket.
“No, no,” the shoe shiner says. “My children need paper money.”
The other man squeezes Matt’s shoulder, grins, and adds for clarity: “It’s not enough.”
The shoe shiner holds tight to Matt’s left foot.
Hopping on one leg, Matt withdraws his wallet. He has only a fifty lira bill—about US$25.
“Sorry, I have nothing smaller,” Matt says, showing the bill.
“No problem,” says the shoe shiner, “I give change.” He snatches the fifty from Matt’s hand. The other man hands reaches into his pocket and hands back fifteen lira.
“Too much!” Matt says.
“For my children!” the shoe shiner says, planting his wet lips and bristly moustache to the back of Matt’s hand. He releases Matt’s foot. “Thank you! Thank you!”
Matt hurries up the street.
“Wait!” The other man yells. “You need guide?”
Sure, I was a sucker that first time. But once you’re hip to the classic shoeshine con, Istanbul’s a breeze. I keep coming back. It’s one of my favourite cities. I guess Clare and I could have skipped it on our global prowl, this backpacking reconnaissance mission for affordable cities, because I already knew Istanbul to be a fine place for an expatriate writer. But Clare had never been to the city, and it would be a shame for any archeologist to miss out on the capital of the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires. What’s more, it wasn’t going to cost us much extra to make a week-long stop en route from Georgia to Greece.
I was lucky to have so many excuses to go back.
This made it my third visit in four years. I’ve seen the city in the bitter winter, in sultry summer, and now in florid spring. Perhaps more than any other world city, Istanbul transforms with the seasons. In any season you have trouble deciding whether the place is Eastern European, Middle Eastern, or Central Asian. This all makes for a kaleidoscopic city, thriving and chaotic, cosmopolitan with entrenched provincial colour, a place of contradictions. Sometimes you feel like you’re at the centre of the world.
Here are notes from my first three sojourns in this great city on the Bosphorus.
Winter 2008: In the Sultanahmet Without a Wedding Ring
At dawn the plane descended through an ice-slush of clouds. I stumbled through passport control at Atatürk International Airport. Beyond the gates Mehmet, a portly old man, held up a sign bearing my name. I followed him. The outside air was frosty and the sky a pale haze of industrial pollution. Mehmet led me to his white panel van. On the highway, cruising by decayed mass housing blocks, Mehmet leaned over to smack the dust off my jeans and pat my belly. He cheered when he saw I had no wedding ring.
“Not have wife?”
“Very, very good,” he said. “They nag, nag, nag,”
We had fog on our breaths all the way into the city.
Istanbul is split down the middle by the Bosphorus, which joins the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The strait divides not just the city, but Europe and Asia. On this visit I would stick to the European side, which gathers around the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus. On the northern side of the Horn is the district of Beyoğlu on the way uphill to Taksim Square. On the southern side is the Sultanahmet, home to the Aya Sofya, Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) and Topkapı Palace.
Mehmet dropped me outside my hotel in the Sultanahmet and then drove back to the airport to pick up another traveller. I buzzed the hotel door. The manager, Suleyman, grudgingly climbed out of his cot behind the counter and led me upstairs to my room. Why so early? I dumped my backpack and took a hot shower and put on clean clothes. When I opened the bedside drawer where one usually expects to see a Gideon’s Bible—or maybe in this case a Gideon’s Qur’an—I found instead what was left of a packet of condoms and a blood-brown tampon. I went down to the lobby and complained to Suleyman the Not-So-Magnificent. He patted my belly and said, ‘Don’t worry—I fix.’
I put on a pair of gloves and went for an early morning walk. The Blue Mosque, seemingly transparent in the southwestern mist, directly faces the Aya Sofya, powder-pink that day before the blue northeastern sky. The area outside the Aya Sofya was deserted except for a man in a Gore-Tex jacket who sold me an international calling card. It started to rain. My stonecold feet led me to a diner on Divan Yolu Caddesi. I ate breakfast and read Anthony Burgess’s Little Wilson and Big God for a few hours.
That afternoon when the rain stopped I walked through Gülhane Park on the slopes below Topkapı Palace. At the edge of the park I found an open air café on a ridge overlooking the Bosphorus. There were no other customers. I shivered and drank hot coffee with cardamom from a gold-rimmed demitasse. A stray ginger cat jumped onto my table and pawed through the rain puddles. It was quiet except for foghorns and the clatter of a train below the ridge. Across the strait above Üsküdar floated a hot air balloon—a perfect sphere, off-white and unbranded, like something escaped from a Jules Verne story. It didn’t feel like the 21st century.
I walked downhill, inspected the ruins of Constantinople’s sea walls, and then walked beside the harbour. On the docks of Eminönü men sold simits (knots of sesame bread) and stuffed mussels. Women in warm shawls, laden with shopping, descended into a pedestrian underpass packed with stalls. The sun was behind the clouds and heavy winter smog, making a ghostly spectre of the Süleymaniye Mosque and of all the mosques on the hills of the city.
I saw the silhouettes of hundreds of men ranked across the Galata Bridge. Were they waiting for a ship to come into the Golden Horn? It was only when I began to cross the bridge that I saw the fishing rods and boxes of tackle and plastic buckets full of little fish writhing in icy water. The men were casting lines into the oily and rubbish-strewn harbour while trams and cars rolled across the bridge.
On the other side, in the harbourside neighbourhood of Karaköy, I discovered that commerce in the centre of Istanbul works on the traditional urban model. Need plumbing equipment? Go to the street where all the plumbing equipment is sold in an open market (Kemeraltı Caddesi). It sure beats the shopping mall.
I hadn’t yet memorised the Turkish for ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ but I did know ‘Etsiz yemekler var mı?’ (‘Is there something to eat that has no meat in it?’) I ordered dinner at an otherwise empty restaurant on the ground floor of a guesthouse in the Sultanahmet. The restaurant doubled as a gift shop. For sale were ceramics with Anatolian motifs, jewellery, and various dust-collecting knick knacks. In an adjoining room was a carpet emporium.
A beautiful and demure lady in an orange hijab brought out my stuffed tomatoes. She didn’t speak English. Her husband, a short man in a brown tie and grey cardigan, was the manager. He wore a peppery grey moustache over a friendly smile. He asked permission to sit with me and introduced himself as Aykut. He wanted to show me his rugs.
Strolling Amongst the Day Trippers
“I can’t afford a carpet,” I said. “And I live in a tiny flat. Not much floor space.”
“Are you married?” he said.
“No. I’m backpacking alone. Free as a bird.”
“You should get a wife,” he said. “If you bring her here I’ll give you a good price on a rug.”
After my meal Aykut asked his wife to bring us coffee and Turkish delights. We waited for the grounds to settle in the cups.
“How’s the restaurant business?” I asked.
Aykut shrugged. “This is not a busy time of year. But perhaps the problem is that I will not serve alcohol in my restaurant. It’s against my religion.” He chewed a piece of Turkish delight. “I can see you are a gentleman, Matthew. But many Australians pass through here, especially to go to Gallipoli. In Istanbul they drink and…what can I say? They [urination gesture] on the street. Is this dignified? They say they are here to honour the dead soldiers of the First World War.”
I took Aykut’s business card with a promise to look at his carpets next time in town. I put on my gloves and beanie and wandered back to my hotel. On the way I passed two strangers with curly blonde hair wearing shorts and sandals. They were slugging beer from cans on the steps of a backpackers’.
“G’day, guys,” I said. “How’s the hostel?”
“Too many fuckin’ rules, mate. Won’t let you drink in the fuckin’ rooms.” The speaker crushed his can and smiled at me. “But it’s all good, hey? You from Sydney, too?”
There weren’t many other backpackers in town. I chatted to a middle-aged hippie from Adelaide who was taking a break from an Indian ashram. She approved of my vegan diet but suggested I improve the positivity of my aura. I met an elderly American who walked around town in loafers, no socks, his ankles mottled purple. He told me he lived in Cairo most of the time. Didn’t much like Istanbul. “Too fucking expensive,” he said. “Ugly City. Ugly people.” When an American tourist couple walked by—fanny packs and crepe tracksuits and red state haircuts—he said with no discretion, “Look how fat those two are. Jesus fucking Christ. Jesus fucking Christ in hell. They’re really fat!”
I found Istanbul in winter a little too sedate. I decided to fly out. I’d heard from a fellow backpacker that one Athens travel agent had refused to sell her an air ticket to Istanbul. He acted as though he’d never heard of the place. Where? This confused her for some time.
“Then I finally realised that he would sell me a ticket to ‘Constantinople.’ And why not?” she said. “It’s only been called Istanbul for half a millennium.”
Fortunately it’s easier to get a ticket the other way. I grabbed my backpack and skedaddled to Greece.
August 2010—Summer Fiesta with the Beyoğlu Crew
A few months before this global prowl properly began, I left Sydney to make a brief business trip to summery Turkey. It’s only a 20-hour series of flights to Istanbul. You get used to that kind of travel time when you live in Australia. I left Clare knee-deep in winter mud on an archeological dig in rural New South Wales.
This time I’d booked a bed in a hostel in Beyoğlu on the northern side of the Golden Horn. I arrived at Atatürk Airport at 7AM under blinding sun, took the metro to Aksaray, then hailed a cab to take me to Taksim Square, figuring I’d walk the rest of the way. The problem was that the World House Hostel was a long way from Taksim. I finally got my bearings after interrogating hotel doormen and re-checking Google Maps at a number of internet kiosks. I realised I had to walk three kilometres down İstiklâl Caddesi, Istanbul’s main shopping thoroughfare, then downhill towards the Galata Tower.
It was nudging towards forty degrees celsius. Wandering around Istanbul in summer is like an endless StairMaster session in a sauna. Most young women in the centre of Istanbul wear the same summer clothing worn in Sydney or New York—tank tops, mini skirts, sandals. Lots of bare skin. This is normal. Perhaps one in ten women I saw on İstiklâl wore a hijab. Only occasionally did I see a woman in a burqa.
On İstiklâl the ice-cream stalls were making money. The sellers, who wear red vests laced with gold thread, are basically street performers. They have metre-long scoops which they use to hit bells (it sounds like shattering glass) and they play all kinds of jokes on kids trying desperately to take possession of their ice cream cones.
I turned downhill on Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi, a steep and narrow pedestrian walkway. A car crawled behind me, blaring its horn for free passage. A man sprinkled water on the pavement outside his bike shop. Music came from every direction (Yüksek Kaldırım is the street in Istanbul to buy musical instruments). Above the shop fronts were appealing old apartment buildings of dark stone and crumbling pink plaster. When the roller doors on the shops came down you saw they were tagged with wild graffiti – balloons like eyes tied by string to clenched fists.
By the time I dropped my backpack in the hostel reception area I had aching muscles, a sunburned neck, and sopping clothes. I wanted to take a shower, but I hadn’t packed a bath towel and the hostel didn’t rent them out. So I hiked back up to İstiklâl to look for a towel. I spent half an hour searching. In a steamy and labyrinthine clothing market I finally bought a cheap t-shirt.
I showered at the hostel, dried myself with the t-shirt, and stepped outside only a little weary from the long flights and the heat. I walked downhill to the waterfront. On the way I bought a tan trilby, what Clare would call a ‘jazz hat’, to keep the sun off. I crossed the Galata Bridge as fishermen in sweaty vests fanned themselves with their hats. I went on uphill with the crowd towards the Sultanahmet. Five minutes later a shoe shiner tried the old drop-the-brush-so-the-dumb-tourist-will-pick-it-up-for-me routine. I laughed. Not this time, motherfucker!
My old friend Aykut was sitting outside his guesthouse under a tree and sipping mint tea.
“Nice hat!” Aykut called to me. “Are you married yet?”
“No. I have a girlfriend back home and she’d get jealous if I got married. We may come through here next year when we go backpacking.”
We drank tea together in the shade. Aykut’s wife, wearing a yellow and white hijab, brought us pieces of Turkish delight. She smiled when she recognised me, but still didn’t speak a word of English.
“How’s business?” I asked Aykut.
“No more restaurant. I have now only the guest rooms and the gift shop. Come inside and see my carpets,” said Aykut. “I’m very proud of my wares. I sell only the best.”
“Thanks, but I don’t need a carpet. And I can’t afford one.”
He chuckled and patted my belly. “I have air conditioning, my friend.”
So I entered the carpet emporium. It was dark and cool, quite like the nearby 6th century Basilica Cistern which was full of wilting tourists in search of relief from the sun. Aykut’s wife flicked on a set of overhead halogen lights and sat me down on a low couch. The walls were hidden behind tapestries. One by one Aykut unrolled each carpet with a flourish across the polished floorboards.
By the end he was panting. With pride he said, “How much you think you’d pay for these in euros?”
“I have no idea.”
“They’re very beautiful, but I really have no need for any of them.”
“For your mother,” he said with a grin. “We must look after our mothers.”
True. Back at the hostel I folded my new table throw and stowed it in my backpack.
The next day I caught a ferry from the Kabataş wharf to the Princes’ Islands. On board I wrote a story for my Stolchlickoff Scrapbooks, read Eric Ambler’s Istanbul-set Coffin for Dimitrios, and then stood in the stern. The white spume in the convulsing river looked like stringy fat in a raw black steak. We passed the other main Princes’ Islands: Kınalıada, Burgazada, and Heybeliada. These islands were once used for the exile of out-of-favour royalty. At first glance they seem just like Greek Islands, although the Sea of Marmara does not match the limpid purity of Aegean water. Not even close.
I got off the ferry at Büyükada. The numerous day trippers (most of them Turkish) went to eat fish or kebaps at the waterfront restaurants. The kids were taking photos of each other. Bookstalls lined up in the square under umbrellas with Coca-Cola logos. A fat white-haired woman, a local, sat on a first floor balcony and looked out at the crowd. She didn’t look happy.
There are no cars or motorbikes allowed on Büyükada—it’s a bicycle and fayton-and-horse sort of place. I hired a bike and skirted the coast. The bicycle chain jumped its thread and my front tyre blew out within minutes. I fixed the chain and rolled the bike back to the shop with grease-black hands. I got a replacement bike but had to argue against paying extra for tyre repairs. Sheez.
The roads of the island were smeared with horse droppings. I pedalled to the crest of a hill and scanned the horizon. Teenage girls sold flowers at a roadside stall. Donkeys were tethered to the trees. I coasted a long way down green avenues past stately Victorian villas and waterfront holiday resorts.
When I got back to the marina I sat down to a meal of white bean and onion salad, French fries, and Efes beer. I caught the busy last ferry. The sunburned teenagers of Istanbul dozed in each others’ arms. My jazz hat blew into the Bosphorus.
A Backpacker Fiesta
The summer had beckoned backpackers from all over Europe and beyond. It was a backpacker fiesta in Beyoğlu. I hardly felt like I’d returned to the grim city I’d seen two years earlier. By day the backpackers cooled off at the shaded tables outside the World House. Down Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi were fresh orange juice stalls and hole-in-the-wall kebap shops and cafes. Among many others I talked to two beer-swilling tubby German girls with flawless complexions, a deeply-tanned fellow from Spain who had cycled to Turkey from Valencia, and two gay English hitchhikers.
One night a bunch of us went to Atölye Kuledibi, a music bar near the Galata Tower. A trio played Turkish folk music as hard-swinging jazz, and hard-swinging jazz as Turkish folk music. They played the strangest version of ‘Now’s the Time’ I’ve ever heard.
The next morning I woke up when the dawn ezan (call to prayer) crackled through speakers on a minaret about ten metres from the open dorm window. The Aya Sofya was visible across the Golden Horn. My fellow backpackers lay in their respective bunks, sheetless and parched. The breeze that dawn was hot and dry and I felt like a baked potato.
Saturday night in Beyoğlu was a joyous occasion. The restaurants and bars and cafes with outdoor dining were at capacity seating. I had dinner with two fellow backpackers: Jerry, a brown-bearded New York musician who’d just toured Israel, and Annie, a politics major at Oxford. Jerry was disenchanted with Obama and his compromised health care legislation, although his leftism did not extend to outrage over the death of activists on the Mavi Marmara, one of the Turkish ships attempting to deliver aid to Gaza in May. Annie raged about the Liberal Democrats who had betrayed her in the recent UK election by forming a working coalition with the Tories. I decided to complain about Australian politics, too. Why not? There was plenty to complain about.
We had trouble finding a place to eat. Eventually we secured the corner of a table in a crowded rooftop bar. We had to climb seven or eight flights of stairs to get there. It was worth it for the view across the Golden Horn. The well-lit Sultanahmet presided at the crest of the cityscape. The breeze was warm. We ordered a round of Efes beer and a bowl of potato wedges. Jerry went off to chat to a girl with red hair. Over a pervasive endless generic house beat, Annie and I tried to talk.
A number of the Western European backpackers we’d met in Istanbul were openly opposed to the rising Muslim populations in their respective countries. They raised the issue of freedom of speech and the Danish cartoons of 2005. Others criticised Islamic culture from a feminist position. Several spoke about immigrant enclaves in Western European cities that had little connection to the rest of society.
“You don’t see a rigid segregation between ethnic groups in Sydney,” I said. “Everybody seems to mix together in relative peace. I mean, I’ve lived in share houses with both Pakistanis and Israelis.”
“Really?” said Annie.
“Well, not at the same time,” I admitted. “But things are pretty tranquil. When there was a race riot a few years ago on a Sydney beach, surfers fighting non-whites, most people were just dumbfounded.”
“I want to go to Australia so much,” said Annie. “It’s my dream destination.”
“Don’t imagine that Australians are any more politically enlightened than Europeans. Maybe we just have a New World mentality. Despite the official jingoism, we’re very insecure. We’re still inventing what it means to be Australian. Whereas the French, for example, are pretty confident they know what it means to be French. And what being French excludes.”
The summer backpacker fiesta continued but I had to leave the Beyoğlu Crew in Istanbul to continue to Ankara, the Canberra of the Orient.
Spring 2011—Anzac Day in Taksim
Back to the present global prowl…Clare and I had been on the road for five months when we flew into Istanbul on the night of 25 April.
“Welcome!” said Erhan, a grey-bearded hippie who managed our new hostel a few blocks north of Taksim Square. “You have just come from Gallipoli, yes?”
We’d inadvertently arrived on Anzac Day, Australia’s day of remembrance on the anniversary of the start of the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli. I’d wanted to stay again at the World House in Beyoğlu but there were no vacant beds. Now I realised why—the city was full of Australian pilgrims. Going to Gallipoli Cove has become the Australian equivalent of going to Hajj.
“Many Australians in Turkey for Anzac,” said Erhan approvingly. “Many.”
“This only became really popular in the nineties,” I said. “It’s a John Howard-era phenomenon. It coincided with flag-waving and Southern Cross tattoos and spouting idiocies about ‘mateship’.”
“A uniquely Australian type of friendship that is somehow superior to the friendship you find in the rest of the world. Our politicians swear by it.”
Erhan clapped me on the shoulder and laughed. “In Turkey you will also find the best of friendship.”
I did not doubt that.
The next day Clare and I decided to take a Bosphorus Cruise. On İstiklâl Caddesi there was a noisy anti-nuke protest (Nükleeri durdurun!) inspired by the recent disaster in Japan. I got distracted by a shop selling books in many languages. I dug through piles of ex-library books, paperbacks which had been bundled three or four together and rebound in a single buckram volume. I found a set of Eric Ambler novels. I wanted to read The Light of Day, the book which inspired the 1964 movie Topkapi. I probably should have been reading Orhan Pamuk or Yaşar Kemal on Istanbul, not Eric Ambler. But Ambler’s pretty good, too.
Under the Galata Tower workers had torn up Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi. Pavers were piled either side of the street, mud was everywhere, red tape barred passage (the barriers were ignored), open drains stank of sewage. Clare and I paid for a river cruise in Eminönü but had to wait for an hour on deck for the ferry to fill up. A German family became increasingly irate over the captain’s deceptions. “Five more minutes!” he claimed. “Five more minutes!” From the deck he spruiked over a loudspeaker: “Bosphorus! Bosphorus! Bosphorus!” For some reason he pretended to be a call on a speaker phone: “Hello? Hello? I am sorry….Bosphorus! Bosphorus! Bosphorus!” It was bitterly cold sitting on the deck. The German children wailed in impatience. I went downstairs to buy a cup of Nescafé. Finally we cruised. We passed Yıldız Park, the Ortaköy Mosque, under the Bosphorus Bridge…
The next day we went to Topkapı Palace. Orange tulips bloomed in the gardens. We checked out the jewels and Ottoman miniatures of the Imperial Treasury. I saw the Topkapı dagger with three emeralds in its golden hilt. It was commissioned in 1747 by the Sultan Mahmud I. It was the prize stolen in the movie Topkapi. A good replica at the Topkapı gift shop cost about $4,000.
In the Privy Chamber Clare and I paraded by a series of relics. A man sung Qur’an passages over a loudspeaker. Topkapı sure has some rare items. I mean, the still-white Turban of Joseph, circa 13th century B.C.? The Staff of Moses? King David’s Sword?
“The authenticity of some of these relics seems a little dubious,” I said. “Why not the Holy Grail? Or Eve’s apple?”
It wasn’t exactly the right place to get sarcastic.
There was one more thing to do in Istanbul before we moved on.
I spied Aykut eating his lunch—a kebap with a bottle of Pepsi Max—on a chair in the middle of his now very cluttered gift shop. He’d filled the space with revolving displays, extra shelving, ceramic figures ranked on the floor. The place was full of customers.
“Be careful,” I said to Clare. “We may discover we’ve accidentally bought a rug.”
“We don’t even have a place to live,” she said.
We stepped into the shop. I squeezed past several customers and shook hands with Aykut.
“I’ve brought my girlfriend with me,” I said.
“Is this the old one or the new one?”
“The same one.”
He laughed. I tottered between the displays of trinkets and accidently knocked over Aykut’s bottle of Pepsi Max. The shop was smaller than ever—and the entrance to the carpet display room was now boarded up.
“I’m renovating the hotel,” Aykut said. Then he raised an interested eyebrow. “You need a place to stay?”
His wife smiled. More customers gushed into the store.
Aykut shook my hand. “You come back later and we’ll have tea.”
I didn’t have time to return to see Aykut that Spring—but there’ll surely be another time for friends in Istanbul.